Thursday, June 12, 2008

The electronic book: The death of the book?

We have been talking about electronic books for many years, but up to this point in time the many models released have promised much and returned little. However, Edward Wyatt in the New York Times recently asked whether we might have reached the ‘tipping point’ with the electronic book. At the annual BookExpo America in Los Angeles two weeks ago Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, “…spent much of a packed session on Friday evangelizing about the Kindle, which he said already accounts for 6 percent of his company’s unit sales of books that are available in both paper and electronic formats.” But Wyatt also indicated that some in the publishing industry are worried about the growing power of Amazon and a concern that if the Kindle is the device that makes the big digital book breakthrough, and it is in the hands of the online book giant, then there might be a threat to traditional book sales and some publishers.

The Kindle is an electronic book (or e-book) launched in the USA in November 2007 by Amazon. It uses an electronic 'paper' display, and reads the proprietary Kindle (AZW) format. The Kindle can be used stand alone without a computer. Amazon's first offering of the Kindle sold out in five and a half hours. You can buy the Kindle from Amazon for $US359 and purchase 120,000 books to read on it that sell for $US9.99 each.

The chief competitor to the Kindle is the Sony Reader that has been around a little longer (released in 2006). Many technology critics have favoured the Kindle, because it downloads books, daily newspapers and magazines with wireless technology, whereas the Sony Reader downloads content via a wired connection.

While electronic book sales are growing exponentially, the numbers are still small, although there have been spectacular successes like Stephen King’s electronic-only novel “Riding the Bullet” that sold 600,000 copies in two days way back in 2000. There have also been other signs like mobile phone novels (see my previous post here) that indicate that some consumers find the electronic novel option attractive.

But will the book disappear?

I don't think so, and I certainly hope not! Even Mr. Bezos doesn’t expect electronic books to replace bound paper versions in a hurry. “Anything that lasts 500 years is not easily improved upon,” Mr. Bezos said. “Books are so good you can’t out-book the book.

And what a piece of technology the book is. One of my colleagues many years ago commented at a conference on a wonderful piece of technology that he wanted to commend to us. His comments went something like this (from memory). This device has some great qualities, in short it:
  • has no batteries or need for recharging;
  • is free of wires;
  • is cheap;
  • is easy to hold in your hand;
  • can be mass produced very quickly;
  • is immensely portable - use it at your desk, in the bath, on the bus....;
  • is very easy to recycle;
  • can be shared and re-used over and over, some have lasted for centuries;
  • can be operated simply with a hand and an index finger....
It is of course the book! This piece of technology changed the world and continues to enrich and change lives and is the perfect tool for sharing the written word.

What would be lost if we did not have the book?

It's hard to say without knowing the future capability of the e-book but I would see some significant impacts - the early reading experiences of children would be changed dramatically, there would be doubts about longevity of works of literature and other significant texts, and there might be some significant equity issues. My guess is that it would be harder for:
  • toddlers to use a Kindle while eating cereal than a book;
  • a Kindle to survive being left in the rain by your granddaughter - as happened with my wife's new copy of "My Mum" recently (a quick wipe off and the book was almost like new);
  • to hand my grandchildren books I read as a child or that their mother read (complete with the cereal stains);
  • a Kindle delivered book to be as readable in 300 years as it is today (note how quickly technology renders texts inaccessible in just a few years);
  • the Kindle to be as resistant to magnetic fields, bumps or being stood on as a book;
  • and I'm positive that a book will survive being dropped in the bath, or out the car window better than a Kindle;
  • all people to have equitable access.
The last point is an important justice issue. While people talk of no technology divide between the rich and the poor, this is a myth. There is and will be a technology divide between rich and poor. While one could argue that this is the same with books, I would contest that it exists to the same extent. Books are so readily available, so easily borrowed. In an earlier post I pointed out that the book is the ultimate 'green' resource and linked to an excellent article by my USA colleague Dr Allen Berger on the role that libraries play.

Books have been carefully protected as precious objects for centuries because of the words and images that they contain. While there is a place for electronic books for storage, reading and sharing, it is unlikely that they can ever fully replace the book. The impact of the book is probably unparalleled as a piece of technology in human history; certainly in terms of human learning and communication. Long may its influence continue!

You can read the full article by Andrew Wyatt here.


George O'Jungle said...

My feeling is that something like the Kindle will eventually, substantially, replace books (there will always be room for collectors and retro-chique).

When the price of an ebook comes down to around $100 ($350 is just ridiculous) that's when the paper-book (pbook?) will start to feel the heat. There will be a period (decades?) of co-existence - much like the CD and the MP3 today. But sooner or later...

The real potential of the 'ebook' is not as a book substitute – rather, the 'ebook' offers the chance to access an 'eLibrary'. Imagine having tens of thousands of 'books' on the size of something not much larger than a pocket calculator.

Imagine the Project Gutenberg available to all for not much more than the price of 3 new books (under the $100 ebook scenario). That's knowledge and information transfer. That's access - and that's equity. Further, the prices of new ebooks will be considerably cheaper than paper books as production/distribution costs will be so much less. Then there’s always piracy… piracy is the great leveller in this eAge.

Funnily enough, I think that children's picture books will be safe for a lot longer than other paper-books. I can't see how the ebooks of today (or tomorrow) will replicate the large size format and vivid colours that make children's books so attractive. Yep, I can see picture books being the last redoubt!

One final thought... I'm sure there was a time, long, long ago, when cuneiform scribes stood around discussing the 'feeling' and sensation of that sweet, sweet smelling clay squishing beneath your stylus... and how could papyrus ever hope to replace this? Papyrus! So dry and ‘dead’ with that scratchy nib and always having to make up new supplies of ink! Inconvenient! Clean, fresh clay… almost alive! And furthermore, once the clay had been fired... ah, nothing like reading Gilgamesh on a good, solid tablet... so much more tactile, it was a real experience! You really ‘knew’ you were doing something worthwhile – and very good for the arm muscles! Finally, that papyrus - so flimsy, so impermanent! When you're writing on clay - you know you're writing for the ages! Papyrus, the slightest breeze and whoosh! It's gone! Forever! If the Library of Alexandria had've stocked tablets, we'd probably still have that knowledge.

Cuneiform lasted around 3000 years, and the tablets are still being read 2000 years later. The pbook with its paltry half-millennium… it’s still a youngster.

The format will change but the written word will always be there and the beauty of the words will remain as well.


Trevor Cairney said...

A great response George and I hope you're right on all counts. Like you I think the picture book will last much longer and can see the great benefits of the ebook if it can provide access to the corpus of all great works. I'm also sure that the price will come down. For me the most nagging doubts relate to the longevity of digital material, especially given the evidence of the last 20 years with textual material and some of the great blunders that we've seen with archiving of even film and video over the last 50 years. NASA's losing of the 1969 moon landing HD images and the large proportion of television program, newscasts and films that have been lost, don't leave me feeling quite as confident as you that digital data will last as long as clay tablets and paper. We'll have to get better at storage and digital compatibility. I also hope that access to digital data remains open and equitable. In short, I hope you end up being right and my minor doubts are proven to be wrong. Thanks again for your excellent comments.